Firstly a warning to my readers, the following entry contains graphic descriptions of what may be considered animal cruelty by some, and may be a bit extreme for some readers. If you do not want to hear stories of the preparation of living sea animals for food, please do not read this entry. Caveat lector.

Many of you may have heard stories of sushi so fresh that it was still alive when it was served, which the Japanese call “ikizukuri.” I’ve seen live octopus, lobster sashimi and fish still moving, filleted on the plate. While some of these stories are true, I’m here to clarify some of these tales, debunk some, and provide some insight into some of the more unusual items found around the world on the menu.

The Living and the Dead

The first issue I’d like to address, and actually debunk, is the story of the living fish, served sashimi style or even partially cooked, yet still live, served for your pleasure (obviously not the fish’s). What brought this to mind is the following news story on the living deep fried fish, where the body has been deep fried and the head still trying to breathe on the platter when served. I have also seen fish propped up on the plate while its body has been filleted and served alongside it, the gills moving and the head seemingly still alive. But while those who serve these fish may want you to believe that the animal is still living, displaying its freshness, the truth is that while the remaining muscle may be still twitching, it is far from alive. Muscles continue to contract after death, longer in some animals than others. But a brain needs oxygen to be conscious (and alive) and without blood flowing through its veins, no animal remains alive. Deep frying half a fish, or filleting it while it is still alive fortunately kills the animal fairly quickly, contrary to the claims of the server.

Some crustaceans and mollusks on the other hand, are most certainly eaten live. Anyone who has eaten an oyster or clam on the half shell is eating a living animal. In fact, if it is dead, you wouldn’t want to eat it raw, there is too much risk of bacterial infection. But those are not the exciting stories you came for. It is not easy to find live food in North America. If you can find it, it’s usually not on the menu. But nevertheless, it can be found. But again, I use the term ‘live’ lightly.

Lobster sashimi is often claimed to be served live. If you can find it, the tail is removed from the animal and quickly prepared sashimi style while the head is placed on ice and garnished… Waving its antennae or claws at you in possible revenge? That’s the theory, at least. What really happens is that the lobster dies pretty quickly after having its tail severed from its thorax, and any movement you may see is just random neuronal firing from muscles being starved of oxygen. The creature’s brain (ganglia actually) has ceased to respond. You see, Lobsters have an open circulatory system, unlike the veins and arteries of non-crustaceans, and the pressure difference when the tail is removed is enough to stop any blood from washing head-wards. That critter, as they say, is, by the time it gets to you, an ex-lobster.

One of the few non-mollusks that is actually served and eaten live is the shrimp. But it is not the shrimp that you are used to eating in a restaurant. ‘Drunken shrimp’ as it is called, is a special, smaller shrimp native to Southeast Asia and served in a bowl in some type of alcoholic beverage, be it sake, or the local equivalent. The shrimp become listless after sitting in the alcohol for a few minutes and they are taken out, pulled apart, and sucked out of their shell (not always an easy task, mind you). They are pretty close to dead at the point of consumption, but for those of you who want the excitement of live food, there you go. Every once in a while you may get a bowl that was prepared moments before, and you may have some ‘jumpers.’ I’m sure you can imagine what kind of a scene that is…

Another mollusk sometimes served live is the octopus. I have seen (but never eaten) a bowl of live octopuses being consumed, tentacles desperately clinging to the chewing orifice of the diner. It is not a pretty sight, and while I pride myself on eating anything, I can only imagine the suffering of the animal so I chose not to partake of that particular meal. It is more popular in Korea, however, than elsewhere, so good luck finding it in in most Western nations.

So the stories of live sushi are basically based on a few examples, more assumptions and a lot of stories. With the exception of the aforementioned mollusks and shrimp, pretty much anything served ‘live’ is not really living, just showing the vestiges of random nerve twitching found in any recently deceased animal. While certainly a testament to its freshness, the presentation of the body or the whole of the animal is certainly a sight to behold. Some stories are true, but many are just for show, entertainment for our eyes as well as our taste buds.

The sushi guy

Warren Ransom

I have always been fascinated by the creation and culture of different foods, particularly sushi and sashimi in the modern era of Japanese cuisine. I am a classically trained chef and sushi connoisseur, also having operated a food service company and enjoy investigating and experimenting with food around the world.

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